By Len Lear
At Chestnut Hill College’s 90th Commencement on Saturday morning, May 13, Elisa Costantini, who only has a fifth grade education, will be awarded a Honorary Doctor of Laws degree. And if there was such a thing as a doctorate degree for being a selfless humanitarian, Constantini would certainly qualify for that also. And the day before Mother’s Day is a perfect time for the award.
Elisa’s life story could make a compelling Hollywood movie (and it may be made). Born 78 years ago in the town of Teramo, the capital of Abruzzo in southern Italy, Elisa came to Philadelphia at age 23 and raised three children with her husband, Francesco. She was a conventional stay-at-home mom who was perfectly content to create the hearty recipes handed down from her own mother for her well-fed family.
When her husband died in December, 2014, however, Elisa was plunged into the depths of the most profound depression. To lift her spirits, her son, Frank, now 43, suggested that she compile a book of her authentic Italian recipes just to get her mind off her own grief. The only purpose was therapeutic.
So Frank started a campaign on the crowd-funding website, Kickstarter. Both Frank and Elisa were pleasantly surprised to see the campaign take off like a rocket, raising more than $27,000 from over 800 donors within one month. They could not possibly let down all of these believers, so Frank and Elisa got to work on the book, aided by friends, which is filled not only with recipes but also with stories and anecdotes from Elisa’s life.
The result was a self-published cookbook, “Italian Moms: Spreading Their Art to Every Table,” produced when Elisa was 76. To date more than 15,000 copies have been sold, and all proceeds from book sales are being donated to the ministry of St. Francis in Philadelphia.
And thanks to the internet, Elisa has become something of a celebrity. She has appeared on a Food Network show about talented home cooks, and she has been asked to give cooking demonstrations locally at catering firms, restaurants and food shows. She has also appeared on the Today Show and The Rachel Ray Show. In addition, the Newtown Square resident has been commissioned by Sterling Publishers to write another cookbook, and she is creating a line of linens.
And lest you think that all of this attention has gone to her head, Elisa still works full-time, as she has for 36 years, at Don Guanella and Divine Providence, homes run by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for people with intellectual disabilities. “The residents of these establishments healed my broken heart when my daughter died and again when my husband died,” said Elisa. “All I wanted to do after he passed was go to work and be with these special people, who in their own way comforted me. I will continue working until I am no longer able to.”
And in her typically humble, self-effacing fashion. Elisa was shocked when she learned that she would be given an honorary doctorate degree from Chestnut Hill College. “I thought my son was joking when he told me,” she said last week. “I could not understand why what I have done was really that special … I know my father would be proud because he always dreamed one of his children would receive a degree, and here I am 50-plus years later. I know he will be looking down on me with a smile on his face.
“I am honored. I am also grateful that they recognize that although I only have a 5th grade education, my life has been an education, and I never lost my desire to learn. I am now trying to embrace social media on my own so I can respond to emails and messages on Facebook from those who have bought my book.”
A hardback edition of Elisa’s first book is scheduled to be available this fall, and her next cookbook, “Italian Moms; Something Old Something New,” is scheduled to be released in April, 2018.
“When I am down,” she said, “and ask ‘Why me? Why have I had to suffer again and again?’ I realize I am being selfish because I have been blessed, not with lots of money but with love, family and friends. I have always wanted to be able to help charities, but until now I never had the funds to do it. Now with the books, I can participate in fundraisers, and I never turn a charity away that reaches out for help. What influences me is my faith and the love and support I’ve received from so many strangers.”
Elisa is now working with a production company that is writing a script about her life that is being reviewed as both a possible TV series or motion picture. In addition to all of her personal appearances in this area, Elisa was asked twice to travel to Tuscany to share her cooking secrets with Italian audiences.
“The owners (of a mountain resort in Tuscany) offered me that final stage of closure of what I had been through with the death of my husband, and encouraged me to take this project as far as I could. On my second trip a couple planning on opening a restaurant had travelled to spend the two weeks with me, so they could learn the traditional ways of cooking classic Italian dishes. We worked in the kitchen morning, noon and night.”
What is the best advice Elise ever received? “To always take the good with the bad and be patient … I never would have guessed that a highlight of God’s plan for me would begin at 76. I thought He had forgotten about me, and this is my message for the graduates of Chestnut Hill, not to be discouraged if life after college takes a wrong turn or doesn’t go as planned. The detour may actually be part of the grander plan that has been mapped out for you.”
If Elisa could have one wish granted, she “would like to find the women I shared a cabin with when I crossed the Atlantic so I could see how their lives turned out. We lost touch when we disembarked on the pier, and I never saw them again. Those woman shared their lives with me for 10 days, and we formed a bond that I wish I would have held onto.”
What was the hardest thing Elisa ever had to do? “I had to bury my daughter. The loss of a child is something I would never wish on anyone.”
For more information, visit www.italianmomscooking.com.